My friend Karen has died. We were only friends for a few years, but I loved being with her. I knew when I first met her that she had a terminal illness. In fact, I invited her out for coffee early in our friendship, mustering up the courage to ask her what it is like to live with the prospect of a shortened life.
But I was surprised to find that Karen didn’t want to talk about her illness. She told me a little about her treatment schedule, but never revealed where the cancer was in her body or her prospects for survival. She said she didn’t want her life defined by her disease.
Karen told me she had chosen to respond to her illness by living each day to its fullest. She knew how to have fun! Once, we went to a play together on the spur of the moment. Once, she brought her family over to celebrate Chinese New Year with us. She persuaded me to join a community theatre and made focused time for special outings with her adolescent son. And when you talked to Karen, you always knew she was giving you her full attention.
The only time Karen and I talked about death was when I told her my sister had been diagnosed with cancer and I asked for her insights about how to be helpful. She said, “When you live with a terminal illness, you eventually make peace with the fact that you are going to die.”
I said, “Oh, but my sister isn’t there yet. She still has hope that she can beat the cancer with treatment.”
“But she will die,” Karen said simply.
I was startled by this comment. “How do you know that?” I asked her.
“I know it because we all die eventually.”
This knowing was one thing that separated Karen and I from each other in our friendship. I have not yet come to terms with my own mortality. I don’t really believe I will ever die. Karen knew her time was limited and she made the very best of that time.
One day last summer, Karen and I sat at a café drinking tea and conversing deeply for three solid hours. As sad as I am to have lost her, I am grateful we had that last afternoon together. I know I would not have done that with any other friend. I’m too anxious and in a hurry. But with Karen, it was different.
When an ending is imminent, whether it is a friendship, the life of a church, or any beautiful thing, we can try to deny it, we can wring our hands and cling anxiously, or we can gaze into its depth, enjoy it with all our hearts, and let it go.
What would you like to do with the time you have?